Drooling on the Pillow

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Endless Highway 

The last two nights I watched Martin Scorsese's documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, on PBS.

I wonder if younger people can understand what a huge figure Dylan was for us Boomerheads. I have one of those gobsmacked memories of sitting in Billy Byrne's bedroom listening to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan for the first time. When the album was done we just sat there poleaxed, unable to think or respond because our brains were on fire. Weren't even stoned at the time.

The first part on Monday dealt with his life in Hibbing, Minnesota and the early days of the folk scene in New York. They had a remarkable amount of footage and audio tape from back then and it added up to a portrait that more or less filled in what you knew or suspected.

There's two things you have to remember about Dylan: first, trust absolutely nothing that comes out of his mouth, and, second, listen carefully to everything he says. When he talks he's offering either clues to something that just passed through his head or deliberate misrepresentations that have more to do with where he's going than where he's been. But he feels absolutely no responsibility to the literal truth. Joan Baez was on hand to testify how difficult that made working with him or caring about him, but without that 'quality' he never would have accomplished what he did and, I think, part of his genius was that he knew it.

It may surprise some to see how ambitious, driven and calculating he was, but on the operative level, there's really no difference between artistic and entrepreneurial ambition. It's all about an overpowering and sometimes cruel desire to win; just the prizes are different.

Watching him pushing his way out of the sticks and taking (sometimes literally) from everyone he met who interested him, trying this and that, soaking up musical styles and then moving on is like watching a freight train passing through a prairie town. He was funny looking in a very uncompelling way and he had that strange, hostile voice that knocked over the melody rather than follow it. He never even wrote songs until the year before his first album. In his mind, he was a performer and all he wanted to to go big.

And then came 1961. Viet Nam, Civil Rights, Free Speech. Just when the house started going up, there he was, fully formed, complex and a lot to say. Apparently, Like A Rolling Stone originally had 50 verses. I was fascinated to note that in 1961 and 1962 he was suddenly good looking, having lost his baby fat. It's like he was saving it.

The second part of the film deals with what life was like after the Dylan bomb went off and the remarkable hostility and anger that surrounded him when he went electric.

You meet people like him all the time, except for the fact that they don't have talent. They move through life with an area of devastation around them. Dylan left plenty of wreckage, but who the hell cares?

UPDATE: Here's John Derbyshire's take on it.

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